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Deianira › Who Was

Definition and Origins

by Joshua J. Mark
published on 24 July 2014
Nessus Abducting Deianira (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Deianira was the second wife of the Greek hero and demi-god Herakles (better known as Hercules, son of the god Zeusand the mortal woman Alcmene). She was the daughter of King Oeneus and Queen Althaea of Calydon. During the time of Hercules' famous Twelve Labors, he had taken a kind of side-adventure to sail with Jason and the Argonauts and, on this trip, met the hero Meleager, Oeneus' son. When Meleager was born, the Fates predicted that he would live until a log, presently burning in the family's hearth, was consumed. His mother instantly snatched the log from the fire, doused it with water, and hid it in a closet. Many years later, after Meleager intentionally killed his brothers following the Calydonian Boar Hunt, Althaea, in her grief, retrieved the log, threw it into the fire, and Meleager died. Hercules later met the spirit of Meleager during his twelfth labor, when he went into the underworld to bring back the three-headed dog Cerberus who guarded the gates of Hades.Meleager told him he was troubled because his sister Deianira remained unwed on earth. He asked Hercules to return to the mortal plane and marry her so that she would not grow old and unloved in their father's house. Hercules promised the ghostthat he would marry the woman if he were able to.


Once Hercules had completed his labors he then had further adventures, and whether he thought of Meleager and his request is never mentioned. There were certainly many other pressing events to occupy his mind. He killed Prince Iphitus of Oechalia and, to expiate this sin, sold himself as a slave to Queen Omphale who made him dress in women's clothes and do needlework with the ladies of the court. Once Omphale set him free, he then embarked on further adventures such as the conquest of Troy, the war with the Titans, and a mission of revenge against King Augeias whom he felt had cheated him earlier by backing out of an agreement they had made. A number of years passed before Hercules came to Calydon and met Deianira.


Whether he remembered his promise to Meleager seems irrelevant, since he quickly fell in love with the beautiful princess who was so independent that she drove her own chariot and was adept in the arts of war. It also seems that Meleager did not have to worry about his sister's marital status, as she was of such beauty and charm that she had many suitors who wished to marry her. She was not interested in marrying any of them and, perhaps, was not even thinking of marriage until she fell in love with Hercules. When Hercules declared his intentions, most of these suitors withdrew, but one of them, the river god Achelous, would not back down from the challenge of a mortal. He wrestled Hercules for Deianira's hand and would continually change shape just when Hercules' was on the point of winning. He finally changed himself into a bull and charged at Hercules who broke off one of his horns and would not return it until the god had capitulated, which he quickly did; Hercules and Deianira were then married.


The new couple lived happily for a time in Calydon until he accidentally killed his father-in-law's cupbearer. Although it was an accident, and he was forgiven by the king, Hercules could not forgive himself and so decided to leave the kingdom with Deianira. On their travels, they reached the river Evenus and there met the centaur Nessus who offered to carry Deianira across on his back. Upon reaching the other side, however, he tried to rape her and Hercules shot him with one of his arrows.These were the same arrows Hercules had dipped in the blood of the nine-headed monster known as the Hydra during the second of his Twelve Labors in order to tip them with poison, as the Hydra's blood was extremely venomous. Nessus, therefore, was dying quickly as the poison pulsed through him, when he told Deianira that his blood possessed a special quality as a love potion, and that she should take some of it in a vial. If ever she felt that Hercules might love another woman, he said, she should sprinkle the blood on his shirt and he would remain in love with Deianira forever, never even noticing other women. Nessus understood, of course, that his now-poisoned blood would be deadly to any mortal, and this was his revenge for Hercules' arrow.
Gilded Bronze Hercules

Gilded Bronze Hercules

Hercules and Deianira left Nessus' corpse by the river and traveled on. They settled in the city of Trachis, started a family, and, again, were happy for a time until Hercules went to war against Eurytus who, like Augeius, had insulted him earlier in life.He killed Eurytus and took his daughter Iole (whom he had won before in an archery contest but been refused his prize by Eurytus) as his concubine. Another version of the myth relates how he helped Artemis kill a boar which was ravaging the kingdom and was given Iole as a gift. Hercules then prepared a victory feast and sent word to Deianira to send him his best shirt to wear at the festival. Deianira, fearing that Hercules was more fond of Iole now than of her, soaked the shirt in the blood of Nessus and then washed away the stains, leaving only the poison. As soon as Hercules put the shirt on, he was seized with agony and began to burn. He tore the shirt from his body, but the poison was already grafted to his skin. Since he was a demi-god, he could not die quickly and so suffered as the poison penetrated his body, and he became weaker and weaker until, laying himself down on a funeral pyre he constructed, he died. His immortal part was taken by his father Zeus to dwell among the gods. Deianira, realizing she had been tricked by Nessus and had killed her husband, hanged herself.


Her story is sympathetically told in the Greek playwright Sophocles ' tragedy The Women of Trachis (written c. 450 BCE) and also by the Roman poet Ovid (43 BCE - c.14 CE) in his Heroides where one of the chapters is presented as a letter from Deianira to Hercules when he was away, expressing her love for him and asking when he might return to her. She is also featured in the play Hercules Oetae'us (Hercules on Oeta) by the Roman playwright Seneca (also known as Seneca the Younger, 4 BCE-65 CE) where she is depicted as a vindictive and jealous woman who kills Hercules out of spite. Historians have questioned whether the play was actually written by Seneca but, whoever wrote it, they drew heavily on Sophocles' earlier work, keeping many of the same scenes and the same progression and only seriously departing from it in the character of Deianira. This version of Deianira, though a much less sympathetic rendering of the story, is in keeping with the meaning of her name: "man-destroyer". Earlier versions of her story generally present her as unwittingly causing Hercules' death out of her love for him and as a sympathetic character who dies tragically.

Sejanus › Who Was

Definition and Origins

by Giacomo Presciuttini
published on 20 April 2017
Castra Praetoria (Ross Cowan)
Lucius Aelius Seianus or Sejanus (20 BCE-31 CE) was the commander of the praetorian guard under the emperor Tiberius(14-37 CE). Coming from an obscure equestrian family, he managed to become one of the closest advisor of Tiberius, hoping to become his successor or a regent to a young heir. After the death of Drusus, Tiberius' son, he started to persecute all his possible rivals, a task he made easier by driving Tiberius into paranoia and convincing him to retire to Capri in a self-imposed exile. In the end, though, Tiberius grew suspicious of his minister and his ambitions, and ordered his execution. Sejanus' children and many of his friends fell with him in a bloody political purge.


Lucius Aelius Seianus was born presumably in 20 BCE in the Etruscan city of Volsini. His father was Lucius Seius Strabo, a wealthy equestrian that became praetorian prefect in 2 BCE. Even though his family was not noble, it was very important;Sejanus' grandaunt, in fact, was the wife of Maecenas, one of Augustus ' most trusted advisors. We know very little of Sejanus' early career: he probably followed Gaius Caesar, Augustus' nephew, in his mission in the Eastern Provinces, and may have been a favorite of the famous gastronome Apicius - even though we do not know if he really prostituted him, as Tacitus claims, or not. Sejanus married a woman named Apicata, who gave him three children.
Upon Augustus' death, in 14 CE, Strabo enrolled his son in the praetorian prefecture. The new emperor, Tiberius, sent Sejanus with his own son Drusus to quell a mutiny in Pannonia. Shortly after, Strabo was made praefect of Egypt, leaving his son alone in his office. Even though we know very little of Sejanus' first years as sole praefect, it is certain that he managed to link himself to the imperial family, as he was allowed to engage his daughter Iunilla to the future emperor Claudius ' son. The boy, though, died, ruining Sejanus' plans. Around the same time, he was allowed to build the Castra Praetoria in Rome, a permanent camp for the members of the Praetorian Guard. His influence, understandably, grew afterwards.



Tiberius surely trusted him, seeing Sejanus as a competent minister (he had even helped to put down a blaze in the Theatre of Pompey in 22 CE, and he was rewarded with a statue for that); the emperor's son Drusus, however, did not. In fact, he could not accept that a man of such low birth could be so greatly honoured by the emperor. He even struck Sejanus during a quarrel.However, in 23 CE, Drusus died. Ancient sources suggest he was killed by Sejanus, whose ambitions induced him to seduce Drusus' wife, Livilla, who was convinced by the devious minister to help him to kill her husband. However, everybody thought Drusus died from an illness, as he was very well known for his excesses.
Drusus Julius Caesar

Drusus Julius Caesar

After Drusus' death, Nero and Drusus Julius, the children of Germanicus, the intended heir apparent who had died back in 19 CE, and the energic Agrippina, became more and more prominent. The ambitious Sejanus started driving Tiberius into paranoia, telling him that the city was divided and that there was a 'part of Agrippina', which could be a danger to the State.From 24 CE onward, then, Sejanus began abusing the laws of treason to eliminate Agrippina's friends. In 25 CE, Sejanus asked Tiberius to marry Livilla, but the emperor refused the request. The scorned praefect, then, began convincing his master to retire, a desire the emperor had been cultivating for some time. He had never wanted to rule, being fundamentally a Republican, and he greatly disliked making decisions. Only his well-rooted sense of duty had prevented him from retiring. In 26 CE, finally, Tiberius retired South to Rome, first to Sperlonga, then (in 27 CE) to Capri.
Even though Tiberius never left Sejanus as de facto ruler, as he always remained more or less solvent to his duties, we can assert that Sejanus' influence during the emperor's absence greatly increased. Between 27 and 29 CE, Sejanus launched the final attack against Agrippina: she was first put under house-arrest in Herculaneum; then, she was definitively exiled with Nero.Drusus followed their fate in 30 CE. They were all dead by 33 CE, either starved to death or driven to suicide. Sejanus, meanwhile, was bestowed great honours: for example, it was voted that his name would be included in oaths, and altars to Amicitia and Clementia were dedicated to him and Tiberius. The emperor also promised Sejanus to share with him the consulship of 31 CE. His birthday was made a public celebration and senators began flattering him to get Tiberius' favours.



However, Tiberius soon grew suspicious of his minister's ambitions. He probably feared that Sejanus was plotting to remove or to kill him. Then, he acted slyly: he began promising Sejanus even greater honours, and probably also allowed him to marry Livilla; in the meantime, he began showing indirectly that the praefect had lost his favour. For example, he left the consulship in May and forced Sejanus to do the same; he began criticizing some of Sejanus' friends while praising others; and in his letters to the Senate, he stopped including Sejanus' titles. He began showing affection for his nephews Gaius (better known as Caligula ), the last surviving son of Germanicus, and Tiberius Gemellus, Drusus' son, whom he summoned to Capri. This ambiguous behaviour led some friends of Sejanus to leave his friendship.
As soon as he saw that the number of Sejanus' supporters had diminished, Tiberius secretly appointed Sutorius Macro as praetorian prefect and sent him to Rome with precise instructions. In the night between 17th and 18th Macro entered Rome and met the praefect of vigiles, Laco, and the consul Regulus; the next day, he met Sejanus before the temple of Apollo on the Palatine, where the Senate meeting was to be held. Macro told him that a letter had arrived from Capri which would confer him the tribunicia potestas ; the sign that he was to be the next emperor. However, when the letter was read, it only contained ambiguous words. Tiberius first praised him, then criticized him and asked, at the end, to put Sejanus under arrest along with two senators linked to him.
Sejanus was immediately brought to Tullianum, Rome's jail. The people of Rome were happy, as they could not forget what Sejanus had done to Agrippina, whom they loved. Sejanus' statues were torn down by an angry mob before his very eyes. The Senate soon met to decide Sejanus' fate, sentencing him to death. He was strangled, his body exposed on the Gemonian stairs and then thrown in the Tiber (after being abused by people for 3 days); damnatio memoriae was issued on his name, and statues representing him were destroyed. His children too died in the general hysteria; his daughter, who was a virgin thus being immune from capital punishments, was raped before being strangled. Apicata, who was repudiated by Sejanus several years before he married Livilla, decided to take revenge and sent Tiberius a letter, revealing to him, truthfully or not, that Sejanus and Livilla had killed Drusus. Then, she committed suicide. Tiberius became desperate and paranoid, and Livilla soon perished after the reading of Sejanus' letter. By 33 CE, most of Sejanus' friends and relatives were dead.


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